Zimbabwe: Doctor Describes Human Rights Horror

29 March 2007

Washington, DC — Tuesday's arrest of Movement for Democratic Change leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, boosted the expressions of international outrage that began accelerating in early March over the violence used against Tsvangirai and other opponents of the Zimbabwe government. At that time, the MDC leader's skull was cracked and another MDC leader, Grace Kwinje suffered deep lacerations from police beatings. Scores of others were attacked by police. Many of the hurt poured into the Avenues Clinic in Harare to be treated by members of the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights. Police with pistols and batons swarmed in after them, demanding to be present during medical examinations. The clinic's head, Dr. Douglas Gwatidzo , who is also chairman of the human rights association ordered them out and backed them off. Doctor Gwatidzo spoke to the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus last Friday. He also spoke with AllAfrica.com's Charles Cobb . Although the situation of government opponents appears to be worsening Gwatidzo continues to wear an optimistic face. Excerpts:

Let's start immediately with what's happening now. You are a doctor, you have been dealing in the last few weeks with injuries to the Zimbabwe opposition. What exactly are you seeing?

What we, I have been seeing in Zimbabwe is torture basically by government agents, of people who were gathering to hold peaceful prayers for the problems that Zimbabwe is going through. It was carried on within the grounds of police stations, not on the streets. There was no resistance whatsoever by the victims; it was all perpetrated by police officers.

Can you give me an example or two?

In all I attended to 64 victims from that group. The ones that come to mind – there's four, starting with Morgan Tsvangirai who is the leader of the MDC [Movement for Democratic Change]. Then there is Lovemore Madhuku, the leader of the National Constitutional Assembly, and Sekai Holland, who is also with the MDC and Grace Kwinje.

These four suffered more severe injuries than the rest of the group. Starting with Morgan Tsvangirai – he had a 15-centimeter laceration on the scalp which I presume, because of its largeness, means he must have bled profusely in police custody. He passed out. It is possible that he might have had a concussion. He also had fractures in the left hand as well as bruises all over the body, especially in the back.

Lovemore Madhuku was also bleeding from a laceration on the head. Then he also had a fracture of the right forearm. Sekai Holland and Grace Kwinje, the two ladies, received quite severe beatings with Sekai Holland getting bruised from the shoulders down to the upper part of the thighs. It was a continuous area of bruising without any breaks, which means she must have been beaten on the back several times with a blunt object. She also had fractures of the left forearm and left leg. Grace Kwinje had severe bruising on the whole body, but particularly on the back. She suffered quite a bit of head trauma.

What is their condition right now?

As I speak, Morgan Tsvangirai and Lovemore Madhuku have been discharged and I think they have done remarkably well. The two ladies, unfortunately, have not done so well. They need further treatment but when they tried to go to South Africa for further treatment, they were blocked at the airport for some flimsy reason. You know, one wonders why they were blocked. They were not fugitives from justice. They were just going there for treatment.

Grace Kwinje is reliving the torture that she suffered. She sees people threatening to attack her, she gets nightmares, she is very unstable right now. When they were brought back from the airport, they were put in a hospital ward guarded by two police officers who were heavily armed with assault weapons, weapons for use in the bush. That was further torture when you are already injured and people with big guns sitting next to you.

So there is a mental effect here as well as a physical effect?


At least on the two women.

That's right. They have been fortunately flown to South Africa after a court battle, so one hopes that they will continue to improve.

Is this unique, or does this kind of mental stress exist in other people who have been brutalized by authorities?

It is not unique. Anybody who goes through that kind of treatment you can expect them to have some mental stress or mental problem. In Grace's case, it has become more profound than in other cases that we have seen before. It is not unique to this exercise.

Tell me something about how you or the organization functions in this context. It is hard to imagine here in Washington, DC.

That question has come from many people, including my own colleagues who wonder why we have to do this in a tense environment. At the end of the day, I ask myself and ask my conscience to guide me, and this is what is guiding the rest of the members of the association.

We are not responsible for the injuries. All we are doing is documenting, treating, and offering help to those who have been affected. Although it may be frightening, at the end of the day, somebody has got to know. The government doesn't want it out but somebody has got to put a stop to this. This is what encourages us to carry on.

Under how much threat from the government are you and your colleagues in this association?

No threats directly to the medical profession yet, but if you speak to other people they have heard very direct threats to them. One lawyer was told that if he carries on "harassing" the police, they are going to go after him. When you hear such things, the question is: Am I the next one to be harassed in that fashion? The nearest I came to being threatened was when I was called to the police in 2003 to explain why I was doing this kind of work. I told them that I was simply seeing people that come to me with injuries that they sustain in the manner that they tell me.

What caused establishment of the association in the first place? As I remember, Zimbabwe has a fairly developed medical system, trained doctors and nurses. Why an association?

One needs to look back even into the pre-independence era and look at the training that medical doctors get in Zimbabwe. There is no input on human rights work, there is very little input on ethics. As we go through the training program, you are just trained to be a scientific medical practitioner. The [university medical] school has been producing what can be referred to as technically proficient people who are technically able to do the work but they have got no social relevance to the community they live in.

This is the kind of input we are trying to get into the whole health delivery system. As much as we are very good technically, there is the social, human aspect of it which is lacking. This is one of the reasons we came up with an association that actually focuses on those issues so we have a complete human approach to medical practice.

When was the association established? Was there some event that triggered your decision?

It was formed in 2002, in November. It was after the experiences that we went through from 2000 to 2002 and even beyond then into 2003; when we were seeing all these victimized people coming in during those contested years of the referendum, the parliament elections in 2000, and then the presidential elections in 2002. All of these victims were flocking to the hospitals; we said look, we can't just treat these people and let them go. Something has got to be said about it, and the question was who was going to say something about the victims of torture. We found ourselves in an advantageous position as doctors and medical professionals.

Who exactly was "we"?

It was the group of doctors that formed the association.

Who was that group? Presumably it is not every doctor.

Those doctors who were attending to victims of torture; everybody who attended to a victim of torture raised those questions, and we came together as a group.

Were you mostly in Harare?

Initially it was mostly in Harare, and later on we grew and were joined by people from outside Harare. It all started in Harare because that is where most of the victims were, although the problem was countrywide.

So, a group of you were seeing patients who had been tortured and decided that you would have to speak up about it. Not every doctor, however. Why wouldn't every doctor speak?

There are some among us who actually benefit from the system as it is, although they would not come out openly and say, 'I benefit from the system.' Some people decide just to keep quiet. Not everybody feels so strongly that they need to speak up about human rights work. Some people would rather "See No evil, Hear no evil, and Speak no evil"; be technically proficient but otherwise socially irrelevant.

But I suppose that fear is also a factor.

Fear is a factor indeed. For me, yes, I have had to live through fear and do something about it. When you see someone coming to you with these injuries, the next question you ask is, am I going to be the next victim? So you tend to sort of censor yourself as to what you do, what you write, what you say in public. It does no good for you, however, because your conscience is always going to nag you and ask you why you did not do something.

Also, most patients look up to doctors, we are a last port of call where there is a chance for something being done about their welfare—their injuries. If somebody is seeing you and documenting your injuries, you expect them to do something beyond just treating you; you expect some sort of protection from that person. This is what many of my colleagues back home are still not doing.

You said you decided to speak up about this wrong. Did you then pick up the telephone, knock on doors? How did you get whatever your group is together?

To start with, when we formed the association we actually wrote to the Minister of Health to inform him that we had formed an association that was going to do that kind of work. We approached our colleagues in the medical field to tell them that this is what we are doing and we expected them to join us in doing this kind of work. Every time we saw large numbers of people who had been brutalized we put up statements in newspapers and interviews with the radio stations, that sort of thing. We started holding workshops countrywide trying to educate our colleagues on these issues. We invited international experts in the areas human rights and health to come and tell us about their experiences. So we started sharing ideas amongst ourselves, spreading the news right around the country.

The Minister of Health and the rest of the government responded how?

The only response that I remember was a telephone call from the Minister asking about what I was doing. I told him exactly what I was doing. At some point, I invited him to the hospital where I work, where on that day we had seen 85 cases of torture. That was the last that I heard from the minister.

The other thing that we did is to invite the main medical association in the country, which is called the Zimbabwe Medical Association. We asked them to embrace the culture of human rights… That was rejected. We were told that we were perceived as a political group… But as far as I'm concerned, there's politics everywhere, even in the practice of medicine. If you are tending to a patient who has malnutrition, for example, it is politics. You are talking about the politics of food distribution, the availability of food, the ability to acquire food, incomes, and that sort of thing. So it is all politics.

I'm putting this question to you to get your response as a Zimbabwean and also drawing on my memory of the country in its early days of independence. Here's a country whose leadership is fairly well educated, there are a substantial number of people in various professions who are well-educated. I am not excusing [the last white prime minister] Ian Smith at all, but given where Zimbabwe started on the day of independence, how does it get to a place where doctors like yourself have to fight the government for human rights?

That has been a puzzle for many people to try and figure out how and why we got to where we are now. If one looks at human behavior, when things become difficult we tend to behave in an instinctive [manner], which is the basic animal instinct of survival at all cost. I guess that is what has been happening. People are choosing to preserve self rather than somebody else. If one really sits down and looks at what is happening in Zimbabwe, I don't anyone is benefiting. In fact, we are creating more problems for ourselves. As things get more and more difficult, it is now each man for himself. It is survival more than anything else.

How much of this is the fault of Robert Mugabe, the individual who is President? How much of this is the fault of Zanu-PF, the party that dominates politics?

It is not easy to say who is at fault within that grouping. Many factors have brought Zimbabwe to where it is now. Any leader in any situation would do something to ensure that they survive in the leadership position. If you are in a group of people, you tend to influence the thinking of other people. So it is a social club type of situation where people want to be where they are in order to be better than others. Also, there are others besides President Mugabe and politicians who have benefited from this kind of situation, but unfortunately they benefited at the expense of the majority of Zimbabweans. You cannot blame one person; I think there are many factors that put Zimbabwe in the way that it is.

What brings you to the United States?

When I was at home, my brief was an invitation to speak to what is called the Open Society Initiative and also to the Congress. The reason as explained to me is that there are so many articles in newspapers, articles on TV, all these stories are going around, but they have not yet [gotten] information first-hand from either the victims or somebody else to speak for the victims.

When you leave here ...

I am going straight back to Zimbabwe.

Are you worried that people you have been criticizing will read these articles or hear Voice of America where you were interviewed, or read allAfrica.com?

I have criticized the system back home. I have addressed people in various forums… As far as I'm concerned, the work that I do is about issues and systems that are not working. And as far as I'm concerned, the work that I do is about issues and systems that are not working. I am not attacking anybody's personality. I am simply talking about bad behavior. This is my feeling, and this is what gives me the courage to do the kind of work that I'm doing.

Are Zimbabwean doctors and medical personnel inclined to be like you and stay in Zimbabwe and fight the battle, or are they inclined to leave and go to England or South Africa or Austraila? Are you losing medical personnel?

We are. We are losing many people. Many of my colleagues choose the easier option. The easier options that exist are you either keep quiet and you carry on, or you leave the country. Many have left the country, and many have decided just to keep quiet. So, not everybody is like me. But I believe that there are – there's quite a number who would like to be like me.

How did you get to be like you?

I don't know. Maybe it's my personality. I don't know how I came to be how I am, but ever since early childhood I never accepted a situation where somebody abused another person. I couldn't stand abuse of any kind. I would speak out, speak my mind, even in high school.

What do you see when you look down the road for Zimbabwe, both in the immediate and long-term future?

The crisis is going to be with us for quite a bit. What one hopes, and what I think is… that we're going to emerge [as] a better Zimbabwe, because I don't think anybody would want to relive this exercise, either as a perpetrator or as a victim. I don't think that the police who are doing this to people really believe in what they are doing. I'm sure at some point they are going to search in their minds and they will ask themselves why it is that they are doing what they are doing to the people.

What about other African countries? Would you like more from them? Are you getting support from your own colleagues in say South Africa, or Mozambique, or Zambia – your immediate neighbors?

Yes, South Africans are pretty good. They write, send emails, and that sort of thing, and some of them actually call me just to find out how I am. We've got support from the Kenyans, for example. There's an organization called the Independent Medico-Legal Unit in Kenya, and they give us good support. Uganda is very good. Zambia has just come on board. We've formed a grouping [with members from] Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique, and South Africa. So there are eight countries that form that regional grouping and we get support from all those people.

As for the heads of state, I'm sorry to say, they have been disappointing probably because it is an elitist club. They have let Zimbabwe down, considering what Zimbabwe did for many of those countries like South Africa, Namibia, and Mozambique. Zimbabwe sacrificed a lot for those countries to be where they are today—the so-called quiet diplomacy is a waste of time. They are just deceiving everybody else, pretending that they are doing something when they are not doing anything….

I hope as time goes on they are going to change their attitude. I believe a social club has rules and regulations. You put down rules and say, look, you have to behave in this manner for you to be a member of this club and if you misbehave you are out. So this is what we expect from the African leaders. If they see one of their club members misbehaving, they have to tell him openly that you are misbehaving and if you want to remain in this club, you have got to be better.

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